Pet Connection by Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker

Live Long and Paw-sper

Researchers are seeking to better understand the aging process in dogs and humans with the hope of delaying onset of age-related diseases

By Kim Campbell Thornton

Andrews McMeel Syndication

Sophie Cobb, a Shetland sheepdog in Omaha, Nebraska, recently celebrated her 20th birthday. That’s an unusually long life for a dog. Our best friends are more likely to live a measly 10 to 12 years, with some making it to 14, 15 or older.

Have you ever wished dogs lived longer? A good diet, exercise and regular veterinary care are pieces of the puzzle that make up a long, healthy life for a dog, but are there other ways to extend the lifespan and improve quality of life?

Scientists with the Dog Aging Project are seeking answers to those questions with a long-term study of how dogs age and the genetic and environmental factors that affect aging and disease in dogs. In the process, they’ll also learn important things about the biology of aging in humans -- after all, dogs closely share our lives, from the air we breathe to the food we eat to the beds we sleep in.

“Dogs get the same diseases we do,” says Matt Kaeberlein, Ph.D., one of the co-directors of the DAP. “The health care system in dogs is second only to our own in sophistication. What we learn about how genes and the environment shape the risk of age-related disease in dogs is likely to be related to the genes and environmental risk factors for age-related diseases in humans as well.”

For the longitudinal study -- a yearslong look at dogs’ lives and health -- some 10,000 dogs will participate. Big dogs, small dogs, mixed breeds, purebreds -- all are important in teasing out the secrets behind canine aging. Because of the compressed nature of the dog lifespan, much can be learned in a decade, both environmentally and at the molecular level.

“The dog provides us with a really terrific opportunity to ask how those molecular changes differ between long-lived and short-lived individuals within the same species,” says Daniel Promislow, Ph.D., DAP co-director. “They provide us with a kind of magnifier of diversity that we don’t have in humans, where we don’t know who’s going to be long-lived and who’s going to be short-lived.”

While a pill to increase canine lifespan is still in the future, the concept isn’t out of the question. Owners can nominate middle-aged dogs to participate in a parallel five-year study, limited to 500 dogs, of a drug called rapamycin. In lab studies as well as some human studies, it appears to slow aging or improve healthy aging, Dr. Promislow says. Cardiologists at veterinary teaching hospitals will follow the dogs’ heart health over time in the double-blind, placebo-controlled study. That means neither owners nor researchers will know which dogs receive the drug and which a placebo. As part of this intervention trial, researchers will also be looking at such things as kidney function, cancer, activity levels and cognition.

Why middle-aged dogs? They are at the age where they are starting to develop age-related diseases. By starting with dogs in that period of life, researchers will be able to quickly detect whether the drug slows aging and improves heart function.

“If we had a large enough sample size, we could know in three years -- certainly in five years -- the extent to which rapamycin did improve healthy aging in dogs,” Dr. Promislow says. “That’s something that’s just not possible in that timeframe in people.”

A 20% to 30% increase in lifespan in dogs isn’t out of the realm of possibility, Dr. Kaeberlein says. A dog who might normally live 10 years might live an extra two years. Smaller dogs with a normal lifespan of up to 18 years could see an extra three or four years of life.

Studying how dogs age has more than academic interest. There’s intrinsic value in improving quality of life for dogs, but making their lives longer and better improves our own quality of life as well.

Q&A

Brush off cats --

in a good way

Q: Why do I have to brush my cat? Don’t cats groom themselves?

A: Cats do a great job of grooming themselves, but brushing has a lot of positives beyond helping cats stay clean. It’s a basic step in monitoring your cat’s physical condition, for one thing.

When you brush your cat, you’re learning how her body looks and feels normally. You’ll notice when brushing feels good to her -- “Ah, yes, right there!” -- and when she flinches away because there’s a painful spot that you otherwise might not have noticed. Brushing is a time to check your cat for parasites such as fleas; flakiness that might be caused by dry skin; and to make sure she doesn’t have any lumps or bumps, especially as she gets older or if she goes outdoors and might have gotten into a scuffle with another cat.

Brushing has benefits for you, too. In cats with long fur, it prevents tangles from forming. You probably remember from when you were a kid how painful it is to have tangles combed or brushed out. Brushing removes loose hairs that would otherwise drift onto your clothing, carpet and furniture. And it keeps your cat from swallowing loose hairs that then form hairballs that she hacks up onto your floor for you to step on in the middle of the night. (By the way, did you know that the scientific term for hairball is trichobezoar? The word comes from Greek and refers to a mass formed from hair.)

Last, but definitely not least, brushing your cat is a way to strengthen your bond with her. It’s time that you spend together doing something that’s pleasurable for her. You can do it while you’re watching TV or as a form of meditation for yourself. Brush on! -- Dr. Marty Becker

Do you have a pet question? Send it to askpetconnection@gmail.com or visit Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker.

THE BUZZ

Comic sends

cats into orbit

-- Cats inherit the earth -- or at least a spaceship -- in “Captain Ginger,” a new comic book series featuring cats in space. Humans are referred to as “feeders,” feral cats are an issue and Captain Ginger must not only battle space aliens but also deal with undesirable scratching behavior on the bridge, and assign litter box duty. And who could resist a cast that includes a Science Cat and a Chief Mousing Officer? One reviewer calls it “the ultimate cat comic.” Published by Ahoy Comics and created by Stuart Moore and June Brigman, “Captain Ginger” is available for $3.99 from Ahoy Comics and Amazon.

-- At Michigan State University, a new animal-assisted intervention program called “Justice Heals” -- named after a support dog acquired to help survivors of sexual assault -- will pair people with shelter dogs to help them heal from their experiences. The program is a collaboration among MSU’s Veterinary Social Work Program, Center for Survivors and Veterinary Behavior Service. “As a veterinary behaviorist, this program is a unique opportunity to look at the relationships that develop between sexual assault survivors and shelter animals during the healing process,” says veterinary behaviorist Marie Hopfensperger, DVM. “This approach allows us to create programming that is mutually beneficial for both populations."

-- The Tonkinese, originally created by crossing Siamese and Burmese cats, is an outgoing, active and playful cat with a strong desire to spend time with his family and involve himself in everything they do. He greets guests with aplomb, doing everything but offering them a drink. When he’s not riding on your shoulder, the Tonk, as he is nicknamed, enjoys playing fetch, sitting in your lap or just chatting with you about his day. With his friendly, open attitude, he can be a good choice for families with children, other cats or cat-friendly dogs. -- Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker

ABOUT PET CONNECTION

Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet care experts headed by “The Dr. Oz Show” veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker, founder of the Fear Free organization and author of many best-selling pet care books, and award-winning journalist Kim Campbell Thornton. Joining them is behavior consultant and lead animal trainer for Fear Free Pets Mikkel Becker. Dr. Becker can be found at Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker or on Twitter at DrMartyBecker. Kim Campbell Thornton is at Facebook.com/KimCampbellThornton and on Twitter at kkcthornton. Mikkel Becker is at Facebook.com/MikkelBecker and on Twitter at MikkelBecker.